It' so butch and femme: Reexamining Gender Representation on "The L Word"

Curator's Note

 The controversy surrounding gender representation on “The L Word” is often situated alongside broader questions of the show's “progressiveness”- how radical or realistic can we expect a series reconciling straight and queer audiences, social agendas and entertainment value, to be? But viewing gender representation in relation to such general debates threatens to reduce the disputes it evokes to a matter of viewer politics and expectations. While viewer perspective is certainly a factor to be considered, I would suggest that the disagreements over gender portrayal stem primarily from  oscillations and discrepancies within the characters, dialogue, and aesthetics of the show itself.


This scene from “Liberally” illustrates these patterns of contradiction and irresolution. The classically butch and femme lesbians shown provide an obvious launching point for issues of gender representation, and on a superficial level, we are presented with a clear critique of butch-femme performance. Jenny’s evident distain for the butch-femme couples and her embarrassment when she learns of the bar's dated reputation captures the stigma surrounding gender performance within the lesbian community. Indeed, the contrast between “The Palms” and the hip lesbian night clubs on the show reinforce this obsoleteness, conveying the generational divide between the lesbians of the 1950’s and the modern women portrayed on the show.


At the same time, however, the show subtly challenges Jenny’s statements. Jenny's and Dana's lack of experience, their uneasiness and isolation at the bar, reminds us of the limitations of Jenny's authority. Dana's responses further challenges her sweeping critiques. By informing her that the venue is, in fact, the oldest lesbian bar in L.A., Dana acknowledges a lesbian history and community that Jenny remains oblivious to. This recognition echos arguments applied by theorists in 1980’s and 90’s who defended butch-femme gender performance by emphasizing its historical role in resisting homophobia and lesbian invisibility. Finally, as they enter Jenny's apartment, the juxtaposition of Dana’s butch and Jenny’s femme attire becomes clear. The irony of the modern butch-femme aesthetic they perpetuate once again encourages a reconsideration of Jenny's critique. (A similar paradox surrounds Bette, whose second-wave critique of gender performance is far more legitimized than Jenny's, but who nevertheless participates in one of the show's clearest and most problematic butch-femme couples.) Through subtle irony and allusions, as well as more obvious contradictions, “The L Word” continually challenges and reworks its stance on gender identification and expression. 


While my first instinct is to be critical of the show's inconsistencies, I feel the contradictions inherent in butch-femme performance must also be considered. The show grapples with a system of aesthetics and identifications that mimic heteronormativity in an effort to subvert it. Instead of  signifying an essential disjointedness or hesitancy to engage with political controversy, its conflicting representations may reflect paradoxes embedded in the very substance of lesbian gender performance.


 This clip of the show is somewhat reminiscent of 1980s critiques of The Cosby Show.  Scholars and critics questioned the show's engagement with racial issues aside from a on a very superficial level of culture.  Here the show gestures toward a lesbian  history without engaging with it or contemporary manifestations of butch-femme politics, much like it foregrounds lesbian artists, musicians, etc.  A gesture toward a larger lesbian culture or history at times seems to replace narrative engagement beyond traditional hetero soap opera.  

I'm intrigued by the posting's discussion of Bette as someone "whose second-wave critique of gender performance is far more legitimized than Jenny's, but who nevertheless participates in one of the show's clearest and most problematic butch-femme couples."  What is that butch-femme couple?   Unless the plumber (carpenter?) with whom she has an affair, Bette's partners both maintain (at least) physical attributes associated with the femme.  Her relationships do, however (and perhaps this is what the posting meant), provide an interesting presentation of lesbian couples who do not fall into aggressive-passive relationships.  Bette's controlling nature became an issue within the diegesis with both the strong characters of Tina and Jodi.


You're right, Kelly, I should have been more specific in my mention of Bette! I was thinking here of Bette's relationship with Tina, which I see as oversimplified and perhaps essentializing in its treatment of butch-femme identity. And when I referenced Bette's second-wave feminism in relation to issues of butch-femme representation, I was thinking of her critical reaction to Ivan in season two. Though Bette is positioned as legitimate spokesperson for progressive lesbian and feminist politics (especially compared to Kit), Ivan's comments in “Limb from Limb” draw attention to the irony of her second-wave rejection of butch-femme performance. When Ivan suggest that Bette “must wanna get home to the little woman sometime tonight,” Bette interprets this as further indication of his backward philosophy. But I think Ivan is alluding to Bette's hypocrisy, since, as I think you're pointing out, she undeniably participates in butch-femme culture and ideology.  


Ha, I also assumed you must be talking about Candace (the carpenter)! But I think you're right that Bette dresses up certain butch traits in a high femme aesthetic, which is a characteristic move of the show (even extending to Shane, who while not femme is associated with high style). The L Word's dramatic failure to represent butch/femme identity is quite striking, and as you note this scene appears to capture a deep ambivalence.


I agree with Kelly that the program tends to make "gestures" of authenticity rather than meaningful engagements with diverse lesbian communities. Since she brings up race, I'll note that The L Word seems able to negotiate gender nonconformity only by yoking it to other axes of difference -- whether race (Tasha) or class (Max). I don't know that we need to identify *either* the diegesis or its cultural context as the origin of such tangles, though. As you come back around to at the end, the layers reflect and inflect each other.

I am struck, in this discussion, with our own (as queer academic fans, loosely defined) continued engagement with the terms of authenticity.  It would seem to me that it's fantasy and not authenticity that is The L Word's strength. (and it's why most of us never got very excited about that other lesbian TV show, "Exs and Os"). Why elsewould I board a streetcar in freezing cold right after teaching a 3 hour lecture to get my friend's place in time for the opening strains of "The L Word"? I certainly wouldn't do that to watch footage of an authentic butch femme couple eating takeout pizza in their Ikea decorated apartment and arguing over whether the channel stays on football or switches to "Dancing With the Stars".

Seriously, though, I think the constant movement between and across sites of fantasy and authenticity is one of "The L Word's" unintended strengths. And anyways we all know that subtext is always hotter than metatext. I wonder if the unreadability of butch/femme, even by "The L Word", helps to keep the terminology subculturally intact...

I think that Gina is really on to something in reading a version of female masculinity into Bette's gender performance in the first season of the series.  Played up by a highly stylized, sexed up soft-butch/androgyne wardrobe in this first season, a look that is eventually displaced by the various Earth Mother, Feminist Professor", and Hollywood Power-Dyke outfits that rotate in and out of her wardrobe in subsequent seasons, Bette's "butchness" -- if I can call it that -- only really comes into focus in the relationship dynamic with Tina, as the semiotics of that relationship are developed through the kinds of narrative intersections that Gina identifies (such as the Ivan subplot, for exsample).  But in the terms of this relationship, in its Season 1 incarnation, "butch/femme" is aestheticized unstably and incoherently through additional semiotic "screens" of the  patriarchal "man-of-the-house/housewife", on the one hand, and the (not-necessarily-queer) erotic positionalities "top/bottom".  By the end of the series, one ends up feeling -- at least *this* one ends up feeling -- that it is these two dyadic equations that really matter for the stories that Chaiken wants to tell through the show, and that such inchoate gestures toward "a butch/femme retro-future" (if I may crib from the Case-book) only serve to ground the diegesis in what Kelly rightly identifies as a generalized atmosphere of authenticity.  Less generously/more cynically, I might say that, when they are elaborated within the context of romantic relationships (Tina/Bette, Tasha/Alice, Shane/Carmen, etc.), these gestures are merely instrumental for the purpose of the kinds of reversals and realignments by which romance plots generally seem to procede on the show.

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